EXCLUSIVE: Border Report gets first look at new wall at South Texas wildlife refuge

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ARROYO RAMIREZ TRACT OF THE LOWER RIO GRANDE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Texas (Border Report) — The beeping of heavy construction equipment echoed through this federal wildlife refuge Thursday as crews placed panel after panel of new border wall in an area of rural South Texas where prehistoric oyster beds lived.

About 1 mile of a planned 3-mile section of new border wall has already gone up near the town of Fronton in western Starr County, Texas. This is only the second government project in South Texas that has metal bollards already erected, and this site is significantly further along than the one south of Donna in Hidalgo County. (Construction of a privately funded border wall on private property next to the Rio Grande also is underway south of Mission, Texas.)

Read a Border Report story on the Donna, Texas, new border wall.

Both government projects were started two months ago, but U.S. Border Patrol agents said that unlike the Donna project, this project in the Arroyo Ramirez Tract of the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge does not involve the placement of metal bollards atop a levee wall, which complicates the construction. That is why construction is going at such a brisk pace.

U.S. Border Patrol Supervisory Agent Christian Alvarez on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2010, examines a 1-mile section of new border wall that has been built in western Starr County. The U-shaped section is the first to go up in this county and is being built in a federal wildlife refuge after the Trump administration last year issued a waiver to allow construction. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Border Patrol agents escorted Border Report onto the wildlife refuge for an exclusive first look at the new border wall.

The metal bollard panels are 18 feet tall, with a 5-foot anti-climb metal plate at the top. The project is U-shaped due to the meandering nature of the nearby Rio Grande and wildlife refuge, which is just north of the Mexican town of Guerra Los, Tamaulipas.

This satellite image shows the desolate area of the Arroyo Ramirez Tract of the Lower Rio Grande Wildlife Refuge, in Starr County, which is directly south of Highway 650. A government-contracted border wall is being built on the refuge which began at the southern-most point intersecting the Rio Grande and is heading north east for three miles.

This rural area was forged during the Eocene Epoch, a geological period that lasted from 56 million to 33.9 million years ago, at a time when the Texas Gulf Coast was underwater. Environmentalists say embedded deep within its soil remain the fossils from an extinct species of oysters that grew up to 20 inches in length.

Read a Border Report on the Arroyo Ramirez Wildlife Refuge Tract.

These lands had been federally protected. But on July 1, 2019, the then-acting director of the Department of Homeland Security granted a federal waiver allowing construction of border-wall segments through this wildlife refuge and the Las Ruinas Tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Land clearing, however, has not begun in the Las Ruinas Tract.

Construction crews install 18-foot-tall metal bollard panels on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, at a wildlife refuge near Fronton, Texas, in Starr County. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

But in the Arroyo Ramirez, near the tiny town of Fronton, most of the brush, prickly pear and mesquite trees have been stripped from a giant swath of the earth. The area is behind two locked gates and is not accessible to the public.

Cows graze in between the first and second gates, cutting in front of visitors who traverse the dirt road that has been carved through this area to support the weight of heavy equipment vehicles. This 668-acre parcel of land is part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge and normally teeming with jackrabbits, ocelots, fox and deer. 

But the wildlife ceases after the second gate and it’s a hard-hat-only construction site, where crews in bright yellow work vests direct the lifting and placement of the giant rusting metal bollards.

A giant swath of dirt has already been cleared where new panels will soon be put up, Border Patrol said.

Six-foot-wide sections of the bollards lay on the dirt ground before crews attach them to CAT 335 hydraulic excavators that lift and swing the massive structures into the right spot.

In May, Kiewit Infrastructure West Company was awarded a $42 million government contract to build this isolated section of wall, which will include an all-weather road, floodlighting, underground sensors and overhead cameras, according to a Department of Homeland security news release.

Construction is to be completed within six months, Border Patrol agents said.

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